Two very gray-looking White-faced Ibis fly wing tip to wing tip low over my head at The Stockpond but are not tempted to land on the mud of its shore; they keep on their straight-southward path.
If not Autumn, then late sumer is icumen in: now who is an old and looked for friend rises and flashes and clicks over the grass–the first Red-winged Grasshopper. It speaks of livestock Fall Works to come, and that it’s time for pastures to be grazed down to their bones then tilled and planted in oats, wheat, barley and rye, and of the intense and wearying chores of irrigating them and getting them to sprout. The snapping of the Red-winged Grasshopper speaks of getting herd arranged in the upland country, the weaning of calves before their mammas go without them on that annual trek …
The windows of the Cowboy Caravan must be left open for the day, otherwise it will be too hot to sleep comfortably tonight, and too hot for the comfort as well of the inside window garden of English Primrose, Iceland Poppy, Chinese Pinks and Cyclamens, all in flower-show bloom.
The female Cinnamon Teal is missing this morning, but the female Vermillion Flycatcher has arrived, to drive into a frenzy the boys who’ve been here for a while bach’ing it. A frog swims off from the bank in water gone opaque, bright olive green with algae. A large hawkmoth with bright hindwings striped pink, and brown mottled forewings, and long white antennae ending in black knobs, swings right past the truck windshield, drops to the rippled surface, hovers flat and drops its proboscis and drinks and drinks. It’s only the second time I’ve ever seen one do this, the first was of another species, the White-lined Sphinx, over a pool of the San Pedro years ago.
Full sized, mottled-brown grasshoppers appear again, and comes for Spring a single Rough-winged Swallow who glides low over sunny, windy pastures. Malta Star Thistle has exploded in three of those pastures, to give yet another year the horrid, mind-numbing chore of trying to rid ourselves of them, and I try painting undiluted white vinegar across their leaves with a brush to see if that could burn them out “organically” … Foxtail grass also overnight has started to show their flat, feather-edged paddles of inflorescences held outwards on the ground, bringing to mind that a fretful time will come when those spikes become sharp and dried and endanger the jaws and tender cheeks of the cattle. More Cottonwood leaves unfurling, moving towards Summer shade … this seems to have come on here in this Once and Future Sonora even earlier than I’d seen it in Alamos, far to the south in Old Mexico.
Much cooler today of a sudden (only in the low 70s, hah!) but this makes for a heart-singing ride on range for Pat and me to check on cows whose calves will be coming as Spring progresses. The Ocotillo are in the most spectacular bud we’ve ever seen: “It’ll be quite gaudy!” says Pat … “Sure will!” say I. But all is already become gaudy, with the blues and violets of Lupines, white of Desert Chicory, White Pincussions, yellows of the subtly beautiful Desert Dandelion, Bladderpods, shining golden Blazingstar, Creosote Bush in its own bloom of Chinese yellow, yellow Evening Primroses–most everything the color of Sun who has come home to Its desert fastness. There are splashes of many other colors, too: Three-awn Grass in bloom, and purple Phacelia, the bright green of Acacia coming into leaf, the pale green of “Pale Face” Hibiscus’ new leaves. Both the Christmas Cholla cactus and the low, round Mammilaria are gloriously decked out in their red fruits. The incredibly fleet of foot Zebra-tailed Lizards shoot off in different directions as we help our horses place their feet in spaces between flowers, those lizards popping and whip-jumping their tails around in the air over their backs like cats do when they stare at something on which they’re about to jump. We come to Fenceline Drinker to water the horses (I remember one of my old cow bosses saying, “Never pass water without offerin’ ’em some!”), find the bright green water scattered as with the petals of apple blossoms but what is a-swirl on it are little pink moths, some flapping their spread out wings in sad effort to lift off the surface they’ve fallen into. Most are already still.
In the evening at Mason’s, a bat comes flying down The Lane to The Stockpond I’ve just filled, and laps the fresh water …
A night down near 20 degrees has left The Stockpond half frozen over, and it’s not out of the 30s yet when the irrigation nozzles need to be cleared of debris; they give my face a soaking in a cold, cold wind.
Shaggy Miner fungus, acting and looking so like their namesake as their tall heads pop up suddenly from below ground, are hard to take seriously as the desert inhabitants they are. Coming up in Winter the way they do makes them all the more unlikely.
The day breathes with just enough warmth to stir creatures six-legged and eight-legged: a black jumping spider springs from the mesquite to the handle of the shovel I’m using to remove ever more mesquite trees, and still the Polka Dot Beetles are a-flight. Removing the bermudagrass mounds from the bases of the little trees I dig out reveals that the grass is already putting out little green points of growth, there under the deep and warming quilt of old blades. Burroweeds are also sprouting fresh greenery (at their bases at least) and a Bronze Dragonfly is at The Stockpond–this species is apparently the only one that is active right through the Winter, though a week or two can go by without any of them venturing out. Just on either side of 11:00 am the warmth is sweet and the air moves in zephyrs, not in cold slaps as it had earlier.
At day’s end, the tiniest grasshoppers I’ve ever seen (and I mean minute, I can scarcely believe they’re real but sproing they do, so real they must be …) line up on the top of an irrigator’s hose that I must empty of water if it isn’t to freeze solidly in the deep cold of the night coming on.
When I go out across the Bermudagrass Triangle to try to find the pair of pocket binoculars that yesterday had fallen out of, well, my pocket, I stumble on a large Cooper’s Hawk lying dead, its flesh picked about clean but the feathers still beautiful in its wings that are nearly three feet in span. What monster is abroad to have taken down this master bird of prey?
Azure sky, from zenith to horizons all around the same hue, a singular small lenticular cloud on the South but it evaporates like one that dares wander in during Foresummer to be extinguished in a near instant in air almost void of humidity. The 71 degrees today feel as ferociously hot as any dished out by the Foresummer, too: it is too hot to work in anything more than a workshirt alone.
In the dark of madrugada, scattered snow crystals drop straight down, they are so large that they hit the walkway and the mesquite trunks with loud crackling.
The day lightens to an even gray, all the sky, to every horizon. The color of the bermudagrass is as half-toned as hay, the hoops of the Cottonwood crowns are gray though those yellow swaths of leaves still in them are bright even with no Sun … the mountains and cliffs are gray, and the great rock monoliths, and the snow that wants to shimmer when Sun appear … all is muted, understated, in Winter’s elegance. At Mason Pastures it is well above freezing, but there is a skin of ice on The Stockpond, and the puddles out on those pastures have sheets of ice over them a quarter inch thick. I turn on the irrigation, hoping that no nozzles have become blocked but one is, and I’m forced to feel that Winter elegance deep into cracked fingers while whatever is stopping up the water spout is cleared away by a poke with a wire.
A Snipe, striped like the brown and tan reeds, is near invisible where it stands. Masses of Lark Sparrows arrive or fly out, Red-shafted Flickers hunt something on the ground, and Say’s Phoebes catch the bugs that might be able to escape great cold but not the snapping bill of something consummately agile of wing. The day is cold and cloudy to its end, never getting out of the 50s, but despite that there is a surprising evening show of insects suspended on air.
The new day brings an utterly different world: 25 degrees on the ridges, and in the valley below sparkling chips of frost fall from mesquite tips. The bermudagrass pasture stretching out from the window of the Cowboy Caravan all the way to the huge saguaros on the far hill are white, icy, the Rincon above us dusted with snow. Yet the air warms enough even in the El Potrero bottomland for Sulphur Butterflies to come to life, and an azure grasshopper.
Still-green and fresh leaves of the big Hackberries at The Stockpond start falling off their twigs by mid-morning–they never had a chance to turn color before the coming on of a night that was surely in the teens. On the water swim a brace of fine Mallards, their wariness telling they are true wildlings. A Wilson’s Snipe is there, too, and a large sandpiper with a long bill, also extremely wary: a Long-billed Dowitcher. It takes off with a pained, “Pitty peet peet!”, showing a white slash of rump as it vanishes across the fields.
It’s not cold, oddly, after the “winter front” passes through. Is it a specter of Global Warming, and what does that portend? Instead, the day soars to 80 degrees and this brings out great numbers of dragonflies around The Stockpond, and massive flights of the little Polka Dot Beetle. Some of those beetles sport brilliant blue abdomens.
The miniature annual “Mediterranean Grass” (a Schismus sp.), most beautifully green, is germinating in every bare spot across the pastures. It is tiny, but the cows will avidly seek it out.
Only two Poorwills in the road dust on my twilight drive home–and they will be the last of these mysterious yet engaging birds that either take a long winter’s nap here, or slip into Mexico in the night while we ourselves sleep.
First true leaves have come shooting from out the oats cotyledons. Mid-November, and the chartreuse and black grasshoppers, those Polka Dot Beetles of mine, and the Red-winged Grasshoppers are still abundant.
A Phainopepla, after the sun is gone, calls a soft, “Pert … Puurrt …” from the mesquites that mark the borders of his own querencia.
The last few nights have been mild, no ice and the days are more quickly warming through the morning and so they start off with a grand chorus of crickets. In these the six more subdued months, bird song is low on the pastures and not high overhead, not of the woods of the riverbottom and side canyons and washes. The Meadowlark is the voice of the goddess worshipped by human snowbirds, Winter Sun. The pastures are getting greener, but not from seeds sprouting: it is from bermudagrass that’s come back to life after only a few days with temperatures hovering at 90. Millions of heart-shaped cotyledons of Mallows are also adding verdure, the frogs are active, and the aluminum flow pipes for the irrigators come back to being too hot to pick up with bare hands. It is so warm at sunset that the cold air stealing down the bottoms is something refreshing and welcome. Ah but the Vermillion Flycatchers are not deceived by all this and give up the idea of staying on and winterkeeping with us, and today they move out entirely, southward, knowing as it seems they must of the predicted cold for tomorrow when the mercury is unlikely to break 70 degrees. (When those flycatchers have spent a winter away, and return in flaming new waistcoats and black Zorro masks, we Cascabelenses will remark on it with joy, and spread the news.)